Everywhere a Book Is Waiting

The new issue of World Literature Today arrived in the mail this past week, and just in time—swinging back and forth as I am from sadness to despair to a cold anger that needs to be fed by increased political engagement, I find I need literature more than ever to help ground me.

So what a gift, to read this passage from an interview with the Macedonian novelist Lidija Dimkovska:

“In my school the teachers preferred to say that books were our best friends. Not dogs, but books. As a child, even if I loved books more than everything else, I considered this a facile phrase. But over the years I realized that it is true: people in our life come and leave, relationships change, even best friends sometimes don’t have time for us. Human beings, being flexible, dynamic, and busy, cannot stay with us all the time. But books can. Always and everywhere a book is waiting for me.”


I both agree and disagree with Dimkovska. I think she underestimates how friends and family stay with us as interior presences, whether they’re near or far (or for good or ill). But books, yes, books wait for us. In my study I’m surrounded by them: walls of what I’ve read and what I want to.

Among those waiting books are the ones I’ve kept returning to over the years, and these days I find myself especially drawn to books of poetry. One such book, as dog-eared and binding-cracked as can be, is (Asian Figures), a collection of proverbs and aphorisms from seven Asian countries, translated by the American poet W.S. Merwin.

These proverbs and such, presented by Merwin as poems never more than three lines long, are little nuggets of often cynical wisdom. Some land like a punchline, others reward lingering for a deeper unfolding.

From Korea:

Tree grows the way they want it to
that’s the one they cut first
blames the ditch
Even sideways
if it gets you there
Even on dog turds
the dew falls
shadow boxer

From Burma:

When you’ve died once
you know how
Telling a fish
about water
Eats all he wants
then upsets the dish

From China:

Before you beat a dog
find out whose he is
The rich
are never as ugly
After winning
Comes losing
Books don’t empty words
Words don’t empty thoughts

That last proverb would certainly start the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s head nodding. Pessoa was a poet who created a series of alternate personalities—heteronyms, he called them—who each wrote their own distinctive poetries. They all balanced inside him—Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares, among many others. Pessoa spent his entire adult life juggling these various aspects of himself, creating his own internal literary salon.


The following untitled poem, one of the relatively rare poems written under Pessoa’s own name, is a kind of road map of his life’s work. And yet, as personal as it is, it speaks a truth we often ignore about the multiple possibilities within ourselves.

I’m a fugitive.
I was shut up in myself
As soon as I was born,
But I managed to flee.

If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?

My soul seeks me out,
But I keep on the run
And sincerely hope
I’ll never be found.

Oneness is a prison.
To be myself is not to be.
I’ll live as a fugitive
But live really and fully.

(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith)

I can’t remember now what first led me, back in the late 1970s, to the work of the Serbian poet Vasko Popa—maybe an approving review by the poet Charles Simic, another favorite of mine? Popa wrote his main body of work when Serbia was still a part of the now-extinct country of Yugoslavia, and some of his poetry, as the years have passed, seem to be to be predictive of that break-up, of the flawed human urges that helped create the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.


One of the most powerful sections in his Collected Poems (translated by Anne Pennington), titled “Games,” uses the conceit of the structure of play to reveal an elemental something else that is not playful at all. This poem is perhaps my favorite in the sequence:

Some bite off the others’
Arm or leg or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run off as quick as they can
Bury it in the earth

The others run in all directions
Sniff search sniff search
Turn up all the earth

If any are lucky enough to find their arm
Or leg or whatever
It’s their turn to bite

The game goes on briskly

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything whatever

Perhaps this poem is a little too close to home these days. Let’s try another poem about play, written by an eleven-year old boy, Tozu Norio. It’s from the collection There are Two Lives: Poems by Children of Japan, edited by Richard Lewis. Torio’s poem offers us a glorious dizzy ride, bringing us back to the time in our lives when, even if only once, all we wanted was for recess to never, ever end.

Ten Thousand Years’ Play

I got into the ocean and played.
I played on the land too.
I also played in the sky.
I played with the devil’s children in the clouds.
I played with shooting stars in space.
I played too long and years passed.
I played even when I became a tottering old man.
My beard was fifteen feet long.
Still I played.
Even when I was resting, my dream was playing.
Finally I played with the sun, seeing which one of us could be redder.
I had already played for ten thousand years.
Even when I was dead, I still played.
I looked at children playing, from the sky.


It’s dark outside now, the sun sets much too early these days, which adds to my sour mood about the state of today’s politics, and what the future will bring come January. I’m ready for the defense of what I hold dear about the promise of my country, and I’ll be reading from my “best friends” on the shelves in my study, letting them help sustain me, borrowing from their strength. As the Chinese proverb says,

Enough mosquitos
Sound like thunder

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November 22nd, 2016 by admin

Disquiet in Lisbon

In two weeks I’ll be returning to Lisbon, for my second year participating in the Disquiet International literary conference. Besides giving a reading from my fiction and nonfiction, I’ll also be leading the conference’s Fernando Pessoa walk though the streets of the city’s Baixa neighborhood to follow the haunts of the great 20th century Portuguese poet. And I’ll be teaching a generative travel writing class, encouraging my students to explore the nooks and crannies of Lisbon (and there are a lot of them).

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There’s a stellar cast of writers in the program, including the Portuguese-American writers Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar, as well as writers Terri Witek, Tayari Jones, Adam Levin, Sam Lipsyte, Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, screenwriter and actor John Frey, and some of the best Portuguese writers of the day: Jacinto Lucas Pires, Teolindo Gersão, Patricia Portela, José Luís Peixoto, and Gonçalo Tavares. And of course Richard Zenith, perhaps the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English. One of the main organizing spirits behind it all is the marvelous fiction writer Jeff Parker.

But most of all, there’s Lisbon: the palimpsest of history on every street, the summer scent of grilling sardines, the beauty of the language, and the music, the music. Fado is the style most known outside of the country, but Portuguese music offers much, much more than that. There’s jazz, rock, folk, you name it, and because the creative genius of Portugal is particularly attuned to music (and literature too, let’s not forget literature, and did I mention food?), it’s all of a very high quality. These cultural riches are probably not a small part of how the Portuguese are surviving these difficult days of austerity. That, and lots of demonstrations.

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One of my favorite Portuguese bands is Madredeus. After the loss of their singer, Teresa Salgueiro, the band experimented with their musical identity for a while, but now they’re back with a new instrumental line-up that includes two violins, a cello, and the classically trained voice of Beatriz Nunes. Here’s their quietly stunning version of one of the oldest songs in the Madredeus repertoire, “Adeus . . . e nem voltei.”

The violin is also an important instrument in the music of Cape Verde (an African nation of nine islands and a former Portuguese colony). The singer Lura, born in Lisbon of Cape Verdean parents, brilliantly recreates the music of those islands, her voice both powerful and tender. I love the violin in her version of the song “Flor di nha esperanca”–it gives a chamber music touch to the slinky dance hall proceedings.

Will I be lucky enough to catch Madredeus or Lura in concert this summer? I doubt it. But whichever live music I make my way to, I know it’ll be wonderful.

Like what you’ve heard? Then try these posts, which also include videos of Portuguese music:

A Naifa (includes my take on José Luís Peixoto’s excellent novel, The Implacable Order of Things)

Bernardo Sassetti

Or you could read “The Pleasures of Saudade,” my article on the thrilling range of contemporary Portuguese music, which includes numerous videos and MP3s, here at The Morning News.

Interested in Portuguese literature? Try this post on the work of Fernando Pessoa.

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June 16th, 2013 by admin

Writing that Travels

“To see is to have seen,” said the great 20th century Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. This seemingly simple sentence can be read more than one way. First, as a critique: we see mainly what we have already seen, that sight is a well-worn habit. Another interpretation suggests the opposite: that at its best sight is a form of understanding, arrived at only if we have truly seen through life’s visual static. Both interpretations, I think, are true, each the flip of the other.

Though for most of his adult life Pessoa lived solely in the city of Lisbon, rarely venturing outside its borders, he was a poet of inner travel. In his writing he invented a series of alter egos, personalities he called “heteronyms” (as opposed to mere pseudonyms), and he gave his three main creations names—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos—along with past histories, astrological charts, physical features and their own signatures. Most of all, each heteronym was a different poet, and each wrote a different poetry from the others.

Pessoa created out of his own conflicting inner voices a literary salon, and the leader of them (and first to be created) was Alberto Caeiro, a poet of nature and clarity of vision. The identity and poetry of Caeiro came to Pessoa in a flash on day in March 1914, and over the next three days he wrote (transcribed?) Caeiro’s masterpiece, a book titled The Keeper of Sheep. This book had a particular vision that influenced—by their own admission—the work of the other heteronyms, and for me, that vision is perhaps best summed up in the 45th poem in that collection.

A row of tress in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
“Row” and the plural “trees” are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallels of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener
And full
Of flowers!

(translation by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.)

After reading this poem I find that it affects the way I look at a tree, or any natural phenomenon, and how each tree, or bush or flower is its one distinct self, which is obscured by mental and visual static when we add an abstraction to its description. Language can cast invisible expectations on what we think we simply see, as if seeing was simple! I thought I knew what a tree looked like.

Pessoa’s poem took me someplace I might never have otherwise arrived at. The best writing, whether non-fiction, fiction or poetry, is potentially a type of travel writing, and a reader experiences a complex imaginative work as a form of travel. Every work of literature should offer a journey, the challenge of an interior mapping that might lead a reader to him or herself. Writing that travels is the literature of any reader’s need for an inner journey.

Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise. A journey into the land of adolescence, for example, is perhaps the loneliest type of travel there is, as we leave behind the carapace of our childhood and molt into the fraught emotional territory of adulthood. The entry into parenthood can be as shocking and bracing a form of travel as can be imagined. So too is the slow arch of committed negotiation that is the travel of marriage, or any long-term relationship, the intricate balance of one partner’s love with the other’s. The acceptance of one’s sexual orientation or identity is another form of travel, from one state of personal understanding to another.

My favorite city in the world is Lisbon, and it’s a marvelous town to wander, especially with its winding streets and distinctive neighborhoods, nestled among many hills. Throughout the city you will come upon what is known as a miradouro (“golden view”), a small park or plaza on an urban ridge overlooking the vast expanse of Lisbon, each one a new perspective on a city whose beauty keeps changing.

These vistas remind me of places I’ve been in my reading life that expanded my perspective, that helped me to see anew what I thought I had already seen or thought I understood. What follows here is a small collection of miradouros I’ve come upon in some of my favorite books.

In the novel Sacred Country by the British writer Rose Tremain, it’s 1952 and six year old Mary Ward is standing in the snowy yard outside her home with her family—mother, father, brother. They are participating in a nation-wide two-minute pause of silence, out of respect for the recently deceased King George VI. One immediately gets the sense that this is a family unaccustomed to silence; in fact, we get the sense that some of these characters are screaming inside. Mary, however, manages to find her place within this imposed silence, and it changes her life.

“She tried another prayer for the king, but the words blew away like paper. She wiped the sleet from her glasses with the back of her mittened hand. She stared at her family, took them in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not like the plumed men guarding the king’s coffin, not like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guinea fowl coming from near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you, Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

“This is how and when it began, the long journey of Mary Ward.”

So too begins Tremain’s novel, in which Mary slowly forges herself into Martin, the person she knows herself to truly be. A sacred country, Tremain tells us, is where one’s singular soul lives, and at times it can be a harrowing journey to find it, and sometimes an equally difficult journey to accept it.

“Lost Letters,” the first chapter in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, tells the story of Mirek, a dissident Czech essayist who became a well-known personality during his country’s Prague Spring. However, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Mirek is in danger of being arrested. He should be disposing of his writings and communications with other dissidents before the police finally take it upon themselves to search his apartment, but first he feels he must retrieve the passionate letters he wrote years ago to his first lover, Zdena.

The first section of “Lost Letters,” however, has nothing to do with Mirek and those letters; instead, it opens with an ironic historical footnote:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

“Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

This opening section haunts the rest of the chapter, reminding us as we follow Mirek, a dissident opposed to a regime that is attempting to erase the memory of the freedoms of the Prague spring, that he himself is on a journey of erasure. Foolishly, he wants those letters back because he is ashamed Zdena was ugly, and that he was once in love with her, a fact of his life that undermines the playboy cavortings of a popular dissident he has until recently been enjoying. Mirek, we come to understand, is no different in this sense from the government he opposes. The impulses, evasions and oppressions of governments are little different, except in scale, of the same characteristics of individual citizens—a lesson that continues to inform my understanding of politics. But there’s also a much more personal lesson to be learned here, that as we, as individuals, move through time further from our former, younger selves, how tempting it can be to alter our memories so that they better fit with the assumptions of our present selves.

Another of my miradouros concerns itself with memory. Here is the opening of “Cousins,” from a memoir by Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth:

“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.

“My cousin and I are floating in separate, saline oceans. I’m the size of a cocktail shrimp and she’s the size of a man’s thumb. My mother is the one on the left, wearing baggy gabardine trousers and a man’s shirt. My cousin’s mother is wearing blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, and a cotton blouse printed with wild cowboys roping steers. Their voices carry, as usual, but at this point we can’t hear them.”

All right, let’s first address the obvious. If this is a memoir, then how in the world can Beard offer these details, since at the time of the scene she was a fetus? A lot of opinions are out there about whether Beard’s book is a work of fiction or nonfiction, and it has been categorized as both over the years. Me, I have no problem with reading this scene as nonfiction. Beard is imagining a scene that very well could have happened—she knows her mother and aunt well enough to evoke what they like to wear, like to do, and even how they would both try to gloss over morning sickness. And in this scene she can see the beginnings of her complex relationship with her cousin.

This audacious opening to Beard’s essay declares, without having to say a word about it, that imagining is indeed part of our nonfictional lives. We imagine and fantasize all the time, every day, and why shouldn’t this is a part of the nonfiction we write? The miradouro of Beard’s two opening paragraphs widens the view of the genre, declaring that the fictions we create of our inner lives, and of our pasts, is nonfiction territory worth traveling.

The Galley Slave, a picaresque novel by the Slovenian writer Drago Jankar, offers another miradouro. It tells the story of the wanderings of Johan Ot through a Slovenian landscape set in the late middle-ages. Early in the novel, Ot arrives in a middle-sized town and settles down, though everyone suspects he must be on the lam from something. Every small peculiarity of his is noted with suspicion, and he eventually finds himself before a tribunal of the inquisition, facing outlandish charges that at first amuse him, until various methods of persuasion encourage him to change his tune. Having fully confessed, he’s condemned to death by burning at the stake, and as he is driven in a cart through the streets on his way to the awaiting pyramid of sticks and branches, a crowd gathers.

“A throng of respectable folk who were simply unable and, more to the point, unwilling to tame their rage and hatred was crowding around the cart. And why not? Why shouldn’t they spit and flail at this man who had, after all, been proven guilty? Silently and with downcast eyes he endured the people’s righteous anger. He was guilty of everything they had proven, and probably quite a bit more. Directly or indirectly, he had inflicted some evil on each of those good, hard-working people. He had caused the death of this one’s livestock and that one’s child. Another was sick because of him, and yet another was tormented by vile monsters in his sleep. He had afflicted this one’s eye, and that one’s bowels. Look at this old man, shaking and limping and spitting through what few rotten teeth he has left as he rushes toward the cart with the monster on it. Wasn’t he the one whose sexual powers Ot had blighted, causing him to sob into his pillow night after night? And look at that deformed girl sticking her head through the gap at one corner and snarling as she tried to bite him. Isn’t she the one whose hands he crippled, hadn’t he confused and twisted the thoughts in her head? And look at the fat fruit vendor, with spittle and foam on her mouth and a cane in her hand. Who was it defiled her daughter in the dark of night? Him.

“He had done these and other horrible things. He has caused people to wake up at night feeling a great weight on their chest and sweat on their foreheads and palms. He had clambered over their roofs, slammed their shutters in the dead of night, tiptoed around their beds, afflicted their bowls, rotted their teeth, taken away their appetites, caused them to rave with fever, and implanted boil-like formations in their bodies.

“Him and others like him.”

For me, this is perhaps the best passage of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read about the belief in witchcraft. I remember when I was young and would watch a movie set in the middle-ages, and when the inevitable scene of a blood-thirsty mob arrived I’d think, “Whew, I’m glad I didn’t have to live back then!” Yet the psychological dynamic known as witchcraft we now call by other names (office politics, for example), and this section of Jancar’s novel has cast part of my own life experience in a clearer light, dramatizing how we project our miseries onto others, and blame them, even though that blame doesn’t heal our misery.

Travel can be both an exhausting and exhilarating experience, one that can push us past borders of comfort we perhaps had never before recognized. The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered. The earliest moments of being somewhere else also begins the process of that distant place becoming incrementally familiar, ever more closer, so that what seems external travels to you, sets up shop in your internal life.

Our culture lies to us (it’s an unintentional lie) with its quiet insistence on the ultimate primacy of the physical world. “How was your trip?” a friend might ask, the question posed in the past tense because that is the way the assumptions of our language are structured: since you have returned, you are no longer there, any GPS system can prove that easily enough. But any trip’s fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it’s inside you, too.

Writing that travels can offer a similar experience. A phrase, a sentence, a brief evocative section or even an entire work can unsettle us and take residence within. This, I think, is the essential reading experience of writing that travels: we willingly place ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and brave its possible change.


This post has been adapted from a lecture I delivered on June 29, 2012 at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency abroad in Skofja Loka, Slovenia.

For anyone interested in details of this residency, you can find a brief narrative (with photos) here.


Portrait of Pessoa by Manuela Nogueira.

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July 26th, 2012 by admin

How Many Selves Hide Inside Us?

Less than a week after I wrote “The Self Is Not Constant,” my latest post for this website, I came upon a TED talk by Shea Hembrey, a contemporary American artist. It’s perhaps the most extraordinary TED talk I’ve ever watched, and it dovetails nicely with my recent thoughts on the morphing self (and Hembrey will also teach you a trick or two about how to shoot flies with a BB gun).

Shea Hembrey spent some time traveling throughout Europe, attending one art biennial after another, and he found himself largely unmoved by a good bit of the work he encountered at those gatherings. His first idea was to create his own biennial, bring together a grouping of artists he admired. But the daunting logistics of contacting, organizing and presenting the work of a large number of, you might say, used or pre-owned artists, led him to another idea: he’d invent 100 artists, and present the varied work of those artist characters in an imaginary biennial.

And that’s what he did. Working for over two years, he came up with all those artists (106, actually, but six didn’t make the cut by the two curators he also invented) and their art, and the result is Seek, Hembrey’s biennial that is now collected into a hefty catalogue.

The art is amazingly varied: drawings, oil paintings, large installations, environmental art, videos, performance art, sculpture, photography, you name it. Hembrey has “found” a talented international array of artists, all of them born and bred–as he would say–in his head, heart and hands.

Here’s Hembrey at the TED talk introducing the work of an environmental artist who digs holes and then places giant mirrors at the bottom, to reflect the shifting canvas of the sky above (click to enlarge all photos).

And here he presents the work of a performance art duo who like to create “local traditions.” Here they are dancing in a cemetery in Tennessee, encouraging people to establish a ritual of dancing on the space that will one day host their graves.

Here’s the work of a South Korean artist, K. M. Yoon, a sculpture of stone and butterfly wings. “In flutterstone,” the catalogue states, “we are startled at seeing how the wings subtly rustle—a stone not of stasis, yet not going anywhere, just surely pulsing with life.”

And here’s a monumental installation piece by another of Hembrey’s invented artists:

And on and on it goes, one stunning work of art after another, each work created by yet another artist that Hembrey has created. What I’ve shown above is merely a small sliver of the artists Hembrey presents in his TED talk, which in turn only touches on a fraction of the artists that appear in his biennial catalogue. He’s the Fernando Pessoa of contemporary art, and like Pessoa he spins off and embodies the welter of voices within.

Like the poetry of Pessoa’s internal literary salon, Hembrey’s work utterly entrances me. I’m reminded of Stephen Marche’s masterpiece Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a faux-anthology of the writers of Sanjania, an island in the Atlantic ocean that doesn’t exist; or the multi-voiced novels of David Mitchell that burst with the weaving stories of a panoply of characters, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. So I was not surprised to hear of Hembrey’s longtime interest in narrative, which he describes in an interview at the Cool Hunting website:

“Coming from the rural South, I grew up with a rich storytelling tradition. And, the quirky, colorful characters that I grew up around made me see the world as a place filled with fascinating individuals. Then as an undergraduate, I was also an English major toying with the idea of becoming a novelist. So, yes, I have always been fascinated by narrative and strong individual characters.”

Don’t most writers, over the course of a career, create their own biennial of characters? I’ve written and published scores of short stories, and each main character within those stories has to come alive inside me, a new separate shard of my various selves given wing, in order for a story to finally begin to breathe its own breath. Writers transform the multiple selves within into works of art, characters who then may pace the stage of a reader’s mind.

Everyone in the world sails along a current of competing voices. Many of us ignore these, or try to shape the ones they’re aware of into the small shoe of a single self. Writers, and artists of all sorts, and really any quiet soul regardless of audience, are the ones who manage to discover those selves and learn how to release them.

When Hembrey is asked, in that same interview, “Does it get confusing being so many people?” he answers, “The sheer number of artists was hard to manage, so I had to focus on just a few people at a time to stay organized and productive. Once I understood an artist and had his or her voice, then they were largely autonomous and then after making their work, I spoke about and thought of them as individuals separate from me.”

Why do we do this, what generating force sets us on this task? Speaking for myself, perhaps, in the aftermath of a childhood drama, for years I’ve been reassembling the broken pieces inside. Or perhaps not. I doubt I’ll ever truly know. Everyone attempts to craft a life path toward what most matters to them, though the reasons why are not so easily discovered.

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September 25th, 2011 by admin

The Self Is Not Constant

When I first lived among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, at first I felt relieved to hear that the language of the Beng did not conjugate verbs. Thank goodness, I thought, what a friendly language—the ever-morphing ways of verbs had been my downfall with both French and Spanish. My relief didn’t last long, though, since Alma and I soon discovered that the Beng conjugate pronouns, not verbs (with a few exceptions—aren’t there always exceptions when it comes to language?).

So a different linguistic challenge confronted me: to adjust to the notion of a past tense I, a present tense I, and a future tense I, and to move with ease through such pronoun transformations in a conversation.

It wasn’t easy—for me, learning another language (and I’ve tried to learn four) is never easy. But the more I thought about it, the idea that a person, not the action, changes profoundly in time began to make more and more sense. Here are two photos that I think aptly illustrate the point, captioned in English and Beng.

He ran/E bé (E: the past tense of he; bé: run)

He will run/O bé (O: the future tense of he; bé: run)

Though running is an action replete with all the physical particularities of any individual moving through space (particularities that no language can completely encompass), I think one might safely assert that the different ages of the two runners above are where the deepest change has occurred. My five-year old self is different from my fifteen-year old self, is different from my thirty-year old self is different from my current (and newly minted) sixty-year old self.

So which “self” am I?

“The self is not constant,” the actress Thandie Newton says, in her recent TED talk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself.” Ms. Newton’s father is English, her mother Zimbabwean, and she spent a good deal of her early life negotiating a place within the two contrasting halves of her supposedly singular self.

What she eventually found was not one place to reside, but many, as she took on the challenges of inhabiting the characters she portrayed throughout her film career. “No matter how other these selves might be, they’re all related, in me,” she declares.

You bet! The essayist Carl H. Klaus could easily be offering a coda to Newton’s words when, in his marvelously varied collection The Made-Up Self, he observes, “The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing.”

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa understood dramatis personae. He engaged in a life-long project of giving names, identities and different poetic oeuvres to his many inner voices, turning the contradictory selves most of us gloss over into a literary salon. As Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s accomplished inner selves, wrote:

I study myself but can’t perceive.
I’m so addicted to feeling that
I lose myself if I’m distracted
From the sensations I feel.

This liquor I drink, the air I breathe,
Belong to the very way I exist:
I’ve never discovered how to resist
These hapless sensations I conceive.

Nor have I ever ascertained
If I really feel what I feel.
Am I what I seem to myself—the same?

Is the I I feel the I that’s real?
Even with feelings I’m a bit of an atheist.
I don’t even know if it’s I who feels.

So why are we inclined to gloss over our multiple selves? Our language tells us to do so. The “self” is a pretty pushy little word, asserting in its seemingly modest but authoritative way that we are defined by a unitary identity, rather than a concatenation of competing facets, each catching and reflecting a different light, other possibilities. For me, the Beng view of identity, as a morphing property expressed through tense changes, is far more insightful than the meager, static definition offered by the English language. Something else the seemingly solid word “self” obscures is its own morphing history, since the Western notion of self has changed, radically so, over time, and Douglas Glover charts this expertly in his essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought.”

Recently, not long after watching the Thandie Newton TED talk, I came upon a rather extraordinary photo series featured in Guernica, “Self Study,” by the Iranian/American artist Natalie N. Abbassi, a series inspired by the dilemma of identity and made with the help of Commercial production company Toronto:

“It has always been a struggle for me to explain myself, who I truly am, and how I should or shouldn’t act in culturally diverse situations. Occasionally I feel confused, proud, and even awkward about how to deal with the differences of my two halves. Am I Iranian? Am I American? Should I be Muslim from my father or Jewish from my mother?”

Abbassi approaches this struggle by photographing her two halves as buddies, engaging in daily activities—driving, playing cards, or running—side-by-side yet each maintaining her defining characteristics. Would that we all could look into the imperfect mirror of our inner differences, and clink glasses!

“I Study Myself But Can’t Perceive,” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co.

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September 15th, 2011 by admin

Countless Lives Inhabit Us

In two recent posts, “What’s Structure Got to Do With It?” and “The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers,” I took a look at the various ins and outs of how writers structure their work. In this post, I’d like to consider the idea of anti-structure, or at least to think about what might be the cunning use of the absence of structure, as I see it, in the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

If you don’t know the work of Pessoa (oh but you should, you should), here’s a little capsule description. Pessoa lived most of his life in the first half of the 20th century (he died at the age of 47 in 1935), and he was a poet who didn’t write poems as much as he created poets, who then wrote poems. Basically, Pessoa invented his own internal literary salon, consisting mainly of poetic voices that he dubbed heteronyms: more than pseudonyms but less than actual people. He gave them not only names—Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Bernardo Soares were his primary creations—but also biographies, astrological charts, personalities and physical features, even individual signatures.

Since his death, Pessoa’s reputation has increasingly grown throughout the world, to the point where he’s recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. The Portuguese adore Pessoa, and not only does his legacy pervade most discussions of literature in Portugal, but to the general public at large this modestly dressed, be-speckled poet is something of a rock star. Anywhere in Lisbon you can exchange euros for Fernando Pessoa tee shirts, coffee cups, notebooks and key chains, even Do Not Disturb signs—you name it. The first evening I ever spent in Lisbon, back in June of 1999, turned out to be the birthday of Pessoa (he would have been 111), and my family and I made our way to a grand celebration of the event: 400 Portuguese artists had been commissioned to each create a work of art about Pessoa, and these were displayed together on a long wall.

Not only did Pessoa’s invented poets have separate biographies and signatures, they each wrote an entirely different sort of poetry from the others. Alberto Caeiro, who imagined himself a sheep herder, was a poet of nature and a philosopher who distrusted abstraction in language:

“A row of trees in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
‘Row’ and the plural ‘trees’ are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallel lines of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener and full of flowers!”

Álvaro de Campos, an engineer by training, was a wilder, more loquacious poet:

“I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

Windows in my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain
With the mystery of things beneath stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.”

Ricardo Reis was a poet obsessed with fate and love and strict poetic forms, while Bernardo Soares was a prose poet who combined metaphysical musings with close descriptions of everyday city life. Yet all of them, in one way or another, wrote about the multiplicity of selves that inhabit every human being. Here’s Ricardo Reis’s take on the subject:

“Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I’s than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.”

Most of the poems written in Pessoa’s name or in the names of his many heteronyms were not published in his lifetime. After his death, his friends and literary executors opened a trunk in his study and discovered thousands of pages of works of every sort: poems, of course, and prose poems, essays, translations, short stories, plays. Most of what we know of Pessoa’s literary life and imagination comes from that trunk, and literary editors have been mining it for over half a century, collating the work into genre, category, and attribution—Pessoa used scores of alternate names besides the main four I’ve already mentioned. And collections of Pessoa’s poetry are usually broken down into different sections, the poetry of Caeiro kept together, separate from the poems of Reis, and so forth. One of the most popular collections of Pessoa’s poetry translated into English is Richard Zenith’s aptly titled Fernando Pessoa and Co.

Perhaps Pessoa’s greatest sustained individual work is The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, a kind of memoir of the interior, written as prose poems and filled with gems such as this:

“I never sleep. I live and I dream; or rather, I dream in life and in my sleep, which is also life. There’s no break in my consciousness: I’m aware of what’s around me if I haven’t fallen asleep yet or if I sleep fitfully, and I start dreaming as soon as I’m really asleep. And so I’m a perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected but always pretending to be external, situated among people in the daylight, if I’m awake, or among phantoms in the non-light that illuminates dreams, if I’m asleep. I honestly don’t know how to distinguish one state from the other, and it may be that I’m actually dreaming when I’m awake and that I wake up when I fall asleep.”

The problem is that none of the scraps of paper in Pessoa’s trunk that were eventually collected into The Book of Disquiet were numbered. Which means that every ordered compilation of Soares’ prose poems is a guess, and there are an infinite number of ways The Book of Disquiet can be structured. You could say that Pessoa, before Borges, created a version of the infinite library Borges dreamed of.

Pessoa himself had written a number of contradictory ideas about how to structure The Book of Disquiet (which he never did in his lifetime). Perhaps the most telling description, in a letter to his friend Armando Cortes-Rodrigues, is “it’s all fragments, fragments, fragments.”

I’d say that all the various collections of Fernando Pessoa’s work, while initially exhilarating in charting the various borders of his various selves, ultimately appear to perhaps too easily pin down the fluid possibilities Pessoa remained faithful to all his life. Much of his work was written piecemeal over thirty years: each new poem, essay, or prose poem rose out of the crowd of voices inside Pessoa, waiting to be heard, and then placed in a trunk. Sometimes I think that Fernando Pessoa’s greatest achievement was not his work as eventually posthumously archived, organized, and structured. Perhaps his greatest achievement was simply the raw material that was discovered in his trunk.

This multiplicity of voices and different identities, the messy accumulation of competing versions of the self jostling each other in that hidden, disorganized mix announce, by their very disorganization, their lack of structure, that This is what a human mind is like without the lines of latitude and longitude. As if Pessoa’s life’s work, hidden in that trunk like thoughts in a skull, was meant to make the point that we are all, inside, a “perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected . . . “

Excerpt from “The Keeper of Sheep,” by Alberto Caeiro translated by Richard Zenith, in A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe.

Excerpt from “The Tobacco Shop,” by Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

“Countless Lives inhabit Us,” by Ricardo Reis, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

Excerpt from section 342 of The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, translated by Richard Zenith.

Photos of Pessoa artwork and heteronym signatures: Philip Graham

In the work of art above by Roberta Frandino (click to enlarge), three of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Reis, Caeiro and de Campos, stand behind the open trunk filled with his manuscripts. The papers flow out, transforming into the distinctive square cobblestones of Lisbon’s streets, which Pessoa himself is walking upon . . .

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April 17th, 2011 by admin